In 2011 I was robbed at gunpoint in a city where many people have been murdered under similar circumstances. I was alone, the man approached me from behind, shoved a semi-automatic pistol in my face and shouted, “Give it up, Bitch!”. Because of the thief’s mercy or stupid indifference, he took only my wallet and cell phone, but not my life.
I’ve replayed that night countless times in my mind, trying to identify what I should have done differently. Not just the moment when the man had a gun in my face—at that point I had few options—, but everything leading up to that moment. The choices I made that night, and the choices I’ve made over the entirety of my life that allowed me to be a victim.
The mugging made me realize for the first time how vulnerable we are to other people’s violence. I’d thought about death and mortality before, but almost never thought about the role other people’s violence can play in bringing about my death. Now I think about it every day. In particular I think about what has made me vulnerable, and what I can do to make myself safer.
I’m aware that the word hypervigilance is often used as a term for a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. I take issue with only thinking of hypervigilance as a neurosis. I believe hypervigilance can also be a great virtue if one approaches this new awareness honestly, authentically and lets the awareness change one’s life. Compare it to the sudden realization of one’s mortality. One can deny mortality, try to hide from it like the man in Tolstoy’s novella. Or one can acknowledge it daily, striving to live a life whose goals and actions are consistent with this new awareness.
As for me… I’m starting this blog while I’m still figuring out how to live with this unfiltered awareness of violence. In a way, it’s a gift, for it helps me better protect myself and those I love. But this anxiety can be unpleasant. I do miss being unaware. I feel at times like Dostoevsky’s Devil when he says, “I would give all of that life beyond the stars, all ranks and honors, only to be incarnated in the soul of a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound merchant’s wife and light candles to God.” But, alas, there is no going back to blindness once you’ve had your eyes opened.